LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - “This case is big. This is Minnesota’s Trayvon Martin case,” prosecutor Pete Orput said before the Byron Smith murder trial.
Except it never really was.
Unlike the Florida case that became a lightning rod on race and the boundaries of self-defense, the Smith case got national attention but never gained the traction some predicted among gun proponents.
Joe Olson thinks he knows why.
Olson is as big of a gun advocate as you will find. The Hamline University law professor has worked on behalf of gun owners at the Capitol for 25 years and written book chapters on self-defense. Olson is president of Academics for the Second Amendment and once served on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association.
But just before the verdict, I asked Olson about those who say Smith’s actions were justified.
“The only one who was really saying that was his lawyer, and he doesn’t really have any alternative,” Olson said. “It was clearly a bad shooting.”
Olson said that “everybody I talk to at the shooting range knows Smith crossed a pretty clear line. [The law] allows a homeowner to stop a felony in the home with deadly force. It does not allow a subsequent murder after the danger has passed. Anyone who has taken a carry permit course in Minnesota knows that.”
So, apparently did the jury, which quickly convicted Smith on all counts for the murders of Haile Kifer and Nick Brady.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the Legislature’s strongest gun rights proponent, agreed that “justice prevailed.”
“It proves we do have a castle doctrine and it does work,” Cornish said. “If somebody tries to claim the doctrine in absurd times, it doesn’t hold.”
A website was set up after the shootings to collect donations for Smith’s defense. This week, it contained just one donation of $50.
Something out of ‘Fargo’
“It’s a quiet place, a place for people who desire a safe haven to plant their roots,” the website for the city of Little Falls says.
It’s also home to aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. A zoo. A fishing museum. It’s hard to find a place that is more Minnesotan than Little Falls.
But the small town is now also the place where the idyllic and mundane gave way to fear, then terror.
Now, outsiders are less likely to know of the town slogan, “Where the Mississippi pauses,” than Smith’s coldblooded phrase, “a good, clean finishing shot.”
This is what happens when a story of troubled teens, drugs, burglaries, a mysterious and fearful man and a killing unfolds.
In the past two weeks, reporters from NBC’s “Dateline” have been here. Of course. It is the perfect “Dateline” story, with odd characters, funny accents and incongruous violence.
“Like something right out of ‘Fargo,’ ” one reporter quipped during a break last week.
Quietly, many residents predicted Smith would be convicted. Yet it was never really certain because fear is a powerful emotion up close.
You could see that when Smith’s attorneys passed a photo of his stolen Remington 12-gauge shotgun around to jurors. The message: The gun was still out there. What would you do?
But in the end, the Morrison County jury chose the rule of law over fear and emotion.
As neighbors of Smith got up to talk about him in court last week, they portrayed a place where people alternately cared for one another and deeply distrusted each other.
Neighbor William Anderson talked about how he and his wife looked after Smith’s parents, “blew snow and cut grass,” but he also spoke of their suspicions of another nearby family and about several burglaries at Smith’s house.
“Dogs all come to the dish again,” Anderson said he warned Smith. “I know this isn’t over yet.”
Asked if he liked the suspect family, Anderson replied, “They are my neighbors, and I have to live with it.”
Neighbors helping neighbors. Neighbors watching neighbors. Neighbors burglarizing neighbors. Neighbors killing neighbors.
Another witness with the lyrical, “Dateline”-worthy name of Brian-Paul Klein Crowder, showed just how intertwined the town is and why so few were willing to talk about the case.
Crowder serves as the city’s alderman. And hair stylist. And cemetery keeper.
He made cemetery arrangements for Smith and cut the hair of Smith’s mother. As alderman, he represents many of those involved.
Crowder talked about sensing Smith’s fear when he and his mom visited Smith in the days before the shooting. It was a nice tour of his property, with a man increasingly frazzled and unstable, and apparently so angry he hid his truck to lure the teens to his home.
And now Crowder stands to go from a witness to a character on “Dateline.”
The town will never be the same. Reporters like to say that. But it will, or at least close to it.
Normalcy will return to most of the people, apart from the occasional nod to the “old Smith place.”
Or maybe school kids will always remember the strange words Smith uttered to himself after the shootings on a recording that turned out to be the best witness against him:
“It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable until someone kills you.”
For those who choose not to see the bright line between self-defense and murder, maybe that’s the message that matters most.